Ross, Tracee Ellis 1972–
Tracee Ellis Ross 1972–
Tracee Ellis Ross, star of the hit sitcom Girlfriends on the United Paramount Network has recognized that steady roles for biracial actresses like herself are not easy to find in the television industry, and has viewed her own success as a harbinger of things to come. “According to the casting world, I’m a black actress,” Ross told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer Joanne Wein-traub. “But I always say that I’m a woman of color—several colors, because I’m black and Jewish. And that’s been a great blessing in my life.”
Ross was born October 29, 1972, in Los Angeles, the second of five children. She arrived when her mother, Diana Ross, was at the pinnacle of her stardom, having enjoyed a hugely successful career leading one of Motown Records’ most popular acts, The Suprêmes, and then going on to a solo performing career. The same year that Ross was born, her mother starred in Lady Sings the Blues, her Academy Award-nominated portrayal of legendary singer Billie Holiday. Yet during her childhood, Ross was not really aware that her mother was at the time one of the world’s highest-paid female entertainers. Her mother’s marriage to Robert Ellis Silberstein, a real estate businessman, lasted until 1976, and after that Ross grew up in New York City, attending school there and in Switzerland. She and her two sisters had a relatively normal childhood, she told People magazine, noting that she and her siblings ate meals daily with their mother, and that “I was woken up by her every morning for school.”
Ross also inherited her mother’s love of the stage, but described how in a high school talent show she sang a number and her voice cracked. “I, started to cry onstage,” Ross recalled in the People interview, “and my friend had to come onstage and give me a hug. It was really bad.” Despite the minor setback, she went on to study theater at Brown University, an Ivy League school in Providence, Rhode Island. After graduating in 1994, Ross took a job at Mirabella magazine as a contributing editor. She then went on to a stint at New York magazine as its fashion editor, and did a bit of modeling as well, appearing in television commercials for Keds shoes and Infiniti luxury automobiles. After some runway modeling, Ross felt the need for a greater avenue of expression. “I had too much to say that I couldn’t say through fashion,” she told Los Angeles Times journalist Susan King.
Ross studied at the William Esper Acting Studio, a renowned training ground for young thespians, and
Born Tracée Joy Silberstein, October 29, 1972, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Robert Silberstein (a real estate businessman) and Diana Ross (a singer). Education: Earned degree from Brown University, 1994; studied acting at the William Esper Acting Studio.
Career: Worked as a magazine fashion editor, c. 1994-96; appeared in television commercials; made feature—film debut in Far Harbor, 1996; cast in UPN sitcom Girlfriends, 2000.
Address: Agent —Michelle Bega, Rogers & Cowan PR, 1888 Century Park East, Ste. 500, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
won her first film role in Far Harbor in 1996. Her next part came in a small 1997 independent film called Sue, in the role of a kindly bartender who tries to befriend the beleaguered title character. It was shown at the Toronto and Berlin film festivals. That same year Ross was tapped to host The Dish, a Lifetime cable television network show featuring a half—hour of entertainment news and reviews. She found it difficult to find steadier work in television. “I was too white for some shows, but not white enough for ‘Friends,’” she told Weintraub. In another interview, she dismissed the idea that being the offspring of a star was any help in her own career. “There is an analogy I use for the whole famous parent thing,” she told King in the Los Angeles Times. “They say ‘Oh’, it’s going to open doors for you. ’I always say, ‘You know what it does? It unlocks the doors.’ When it is your time and you deserve it, that’s when [the break] happens.”
Ross’s own break came when the creator of the hit show Moesha, Mara Brock Akil, was casting a quartet of African-American actresses for Girlfriends, a new UPN sitcom in the planning stages. Akil had originally hoped to cast a darker-complected actress in the lead role, but Ross and the producer met and became instant friends when she auditioned. The show debuted in the fall of 2000, and was instantly dubbed the black Sex and the City, in reference to the groundbreaking HBO series about four professional women and their dating travails. Ross won the lead role in Girlfriends, that of Joan Clayton, a smart single attorney recently made a partner at her law firm, but someone who dreams not of larger career challenges, but of marriage and children.
Ross told the Internet site Zap2it.com, that she liked Joan’s personality immediately upon reading the first script: “The character and the writing attracted me to it in the first place the basic sort of elements of her, I really related to,” Variety critic Phil Gallo described the lead role that Ross played as that of “a 29-year-old woman with a healthy moral code, a distaste for her trampy friends and a desire to elevate the social and speaking skills of her promising assistant.” Gallo also wrote that show “could test the boundaries of network TV—provided ‘Girlfriends’ is given a chance to blossom.”
Actress Golden Brooks played the assistant to Ross’s character, and the quartet was rounded out by two other characters—a real estate agent, played by Jill Marie Jones, who seems to date solely with profit in mind, and a hippie-ish good girl, played by Persia White, whose character is that of a perennial college student. Girlfriends earned praise from critics for tackling difficult topics in some episodes, such as a bias against darker-complected African Americans; one show even had a white character use a racially sensitive term. “Girlfriends would get an A if only ambition and effort counted,” asserted Commercial Appeal writer Tom Walter. “As it stands, the series—both derivative and original, sometimes in the same episode—often merits just a C-plus or B-minus. It’s not a disastrous situation, because Girlfriends boasts a terrifically talented cast, led by Tracée Ellis Ross, and a take on the African-American experience not seen anywhere else.”
Though both of Ross’s on-screen parents on the show are African American, Girlfriends still helped break a color barrier. Weintraub predicted that Ross’s success, and the rise of other biracial actresses like Boston Public’s Rashida Jones, would help change television. “At a time when no producer can ignore the need to bring diversity—or at least the appearance of it—to a cast, characters of mixed racial backgrounds are nearly invisible,” Weintraub wrote. “Though no TV squad room, emergency room or classroom is without people of different colors, families seem to be the last bastion of racial exclusivity.”
Ross also said that the all-female buddy environment depicted on Girlfriends appealed to her and most likely to viewers as well. “I think it’s a beautiful thing for an audience to be able to get to see someone learn something in a gracious way through their friends,” she said in the Zap2it.com, interview. She also voiced her hope that viewers will watch and realize “that women and African-American women can be more than one thing—all women. But especially because of what we see on TV, the images that we see, that one moment, one opinion, one thing we say, one thing we do does not define us.”
Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), February 2, 2002, p. E1.
Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2000, p. 14.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 11, 2000, p. 3; March 10, 2002.
People, February 10, 1997, p. 185.
Variety, March 2, 1998, p. 87; September 18, 2000, p. 44.
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